Eliot School’s Maggie Hill remembered for much more than furniture

Maggie Hill loved to turn trash into treasure, and spent countless hours over several decades at the Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts sewing, cutting, and upholstering old furniture into something she was proud of.

Hill, who lived in Mattapan, passed away from cancer on January 12 at the age of 73, but her legacy will continue to live on through her work at the Eliot School. Abigail Norman, Executive Director of the Eliot School, said that when she began her job at the school 13 years ago, Hill was already a “core person” there.

Though Hill was a schoolteacher at the Manning School, Norman said that she really loved to just come to the Eliot and settle in with a piece of furniture. After taking an upholstery class at the age of 27, Hill never looked back.

“Over the years she upholstered and refinished furniture for her relatives and friends,” Norman said. “Everybody has a chair by Maggie. She was a sweet, funny, joyful, graceful person.”

Norman said that for years, her office was near the woodshop at the Eliot School. “I used to walk through the woodshop and so at the times when Maggie was there, I would see her every week and say hi, and I developed a relationship with her and became so fond of her,” she said.

Hill had a serious illness a few years back and was unable to attend classes for a while. “At a certain point she was unable to carry heavy chairs anymore,” Norman said, so Hill took sewing classes instead and became part of the sewing community at the school.

“Any place she was, people fell in love with her,” Norman said. “I really felt that she had been a big part of the fabric of the school.”

Cynthia Upchurch, Hill’s cousin-in-law, said that Hill “was much more to me than just a cousin-in-law. We were friends and cousins.”

She said that when she met Hill about 24 years ago, “she was already sewing and doing things like that. It was always a love of hers, going back to her grandmother who raised her. Almost everything in her home was something she bought at a tag sale or found left on the side of the road for garbage or a family piece that needed redoing, and it really became a passion for her.”

Upchurch said that Hill really started to blossom after retirement. “She was constantly on the go,” Upchurch said. “She had more energy than I ever had. She was up early every morning and she went until the end of the day.”

Upchurch also said that Hill called the Eliot School her “therapy,” and going to work on sewing or upholstery is where she could be the most relaxed.

“She wouldn’t stop until she got it done,” Upchurch said. “That was her spirit for everything.”

Ruth Jemison, another one of Hill’s cousins, grew up close to Hill. “We did a lot of things together, Jemison said. She said they went to a lot of churches together and that’s how Hill got involved with churches in the area, and eventually missionary work in Haiti. “She loved Haiti; that was her passion,” Jemison said. Some of Hill’s furniture is going to be sold for her mission in Haiti, and all of her sewing equipment is being left to the Eliot School. Hill had also sewn dresses for children in Haiti.

Jemison remembers Hill loading furniture she found in the trash into her car. “Next time you’d see it, it’d be upholstered in the corner,” she laughed.

“I have nothing but fond memories,” Jemison said. “Event these last few months taking care of her, she wasn’t cranky, mean, or anything like that. She always had a smile on her face.”

The Eliot School has created the Maggie Hill Scholarship in memory of Hill, and will allow several students each semester to attend classes for free. “We are pleased to honor one of Eliot School’s most treasured and long-standing students,” the Eliot School wrote in a recent newsletter.

Maggie’s sense of community and wanting to make things better extended far beyond her upholstery work. She also established a community garden near her home in Mattapan. Norman said the garden “epitomized [Hill’s] approach” to life—“she saw something that needed to be brightened up and she just did it,” Norman said.

“She lived an extraordinary life; I didn’t know until we started taking care of her how many people’s lives she has touched,” Jemison said. “I just hope we can all live up to that legacy.”

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